Stretching northward some 4 1/2 miles from 138th Street to Mosholu Parkway, the Grand Concourse is a boulevard long associated with elegance and style in the Bronx. Constructed by the French-born engineer Louis Risse, the Grand Boulevard and Concourse (its official name) is reminiscent of the broad expanse of the Champs-Élysée in Paris. The Grand Concourse was officially opened to traffic on November 25, 1909.
Though the IRT line opened the West Bronx to population expansion, it was the opening of the IND line in 1933 that spurred the housing boom along the Concourse. The Great Depression led to massive unemployment and a decline in housing construction in the city. Developers looked north to the Bronx and saw an opportunity to construct new modern apartment buildings on vacant lots, whereas Manhattan sites would have required more expensive demolition.
Architects wanted a new type of housing that would address many of the deficiencies of Manhattan tenements. The Art Deco style reflected the sleek lines of cars and airplanes of the period and became a favorite among Bronx architects, especially Jacob M. Felson and Horace Ginsbern. White collar professionals and businessmen, many Jewish, Irish and Italian, were drawn to the Grand Concourse and its surrounding neighborhoods, for its accessible transportation, parks, stores, and elegant new apartment buildings with elevators and uniformed doormen. Large, light-filled apartments with cross ventilation, corner windows, ample foyers, sunken living rooms, and parquet floors were hallmarks of the new buildings. That apartments on the prestigious Grand Concourse commanded higher rents than neighborhood side streets is confirmed by ads in the Bronx Home News. To live on the Concourse conferred social status and was indicative of a comfortable standard of living where one was surrounded by beautifully appointed buildings and amenities.
The 1930s into the 1950s were a period of growth and stability for the Grand Concourse. By the late 1960s, the population was aging and its second-generation residents were moving to the suburbs. Urban renewal programs displaced many working class minorities from other Manhattan and Bronx neighborhoods and the Grand Concourse began to feel the strain, growing uncomfortable with rapid change and a decline in building maintenance by landlords. Many long time residents fled to Riverdale and the newly opened Co-op City. By the 1970s, crime was rising in the Bronx and arson reduced housing stock in many West Bronx neighborhoods south of Fordham Road. The Bronx was receiving negative press, being written off and even red-lined by its banks.
Attitudes about the Bronx began to change through the efforts of Hunter College’s Graduate Program in Urban Planning, and then the West Bronx Restoration Committee in the mid-1970s when attention was focused on the large concentration of Art Deco buildings in the area, including the Grand Concourse. Interest in these buildings increased over the years. Bus tours even began highlighting these structures for tourists who were curious about the Bronx and surprised by its attractive buildings. A unique Bronx Landmarks Task Force was later formed and called for landmark status for some 350 buildings along the Grand Concourse between 149th Street and Mosholu Parkway. The Task Force cited not only the Concourse’s exceptional Art Deco style buildings but also its many fine Colonial revival, neo-Tudor, Mediterranean and neo-Renaissance structures. Their plea for support earned the Task Force the support of the Historic District Council, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the Municipal Arts Society.
The N.Y.C. Landmarks Preservation Commission has yet to approve the Historic District designation sought for the Grand Concourse. The National Register of Historic Places, however, recognized the importance of this designation when it created the Grand Concourse Historic District in 1987. In addition to the County Building and Franz Siegel Park, buildings included in all of the following addresses are part of the district:
730-1000, 1100-1529, 1560 Grand Concourse (east side);
851-1677 Grand Concourse (west side).
The Grand Concourse is now on a decided upswing once again. 2009 marks the centennial of this major Bronx thoroughfare and positive changes are already in evidence with new trees, streetlights, new traffic configurations, upgrades to 161st Street; and the new Yankee Stadium, and park. City and federal funds have been earmarked for the Grand Concourse. Additionally, some buildings on the Grand Concourse have already converted to cooperative apartments and real estate values are rising year by year.
Gaining landmark status for the Grand Concourse is important because it would regulate any planned changes; and would promote careful restoration to the original elegance of its buildings. It would also stem the incursion of commercial establishments that intrude on the streetscape and detract from the buildings. Landmark status, too, would provide recognition of the importance and beauty of these special buildings and would affirm the justified pride of its residents and building owners.
1150 Grand Concourse
(alternate address: 161 McClellan Street)
Commonly called “The Fish Building” by Bronxites
Jacob M. Felson, architect
A long time favorite of children and adults alike, “The Fish Building” is probably the most beloved building on the Grand Concourse. Known for its vibrant mosaic entrance panels of whimsical water plants and tropical fish, the façade is framed by coffered cast stone set with round green inserts (some of which are missing) under a horizontal metal canopy. The Art Moderne entrance door of the building leads to a round interior lobby with a terrazzo floor, beautifully designed in red, green, and gold; and two original murals by Rene and C.P. Graves on opposite walls. The building is designed in an outward E-shape with buff colored bricks contrasted with spandrel panels and brown brick horizontal bands. Angled bays with round corner windows look onto the Concourse and southward along the curving boulevard. This building is six storeys high and has 117 rental apartments. On the east side of the Concourse, this Art Deco building was designated as part of the Grand Concourse Historic District by the National Trust of Historic Places in 1987. Its prolific architect Jacob M. Felson built over 40 apartment buildings in the Bronx and Manhattan.
1188 Grand Concourse
Jacob M. Felson, architect
On the same block as the “Fish Building,” 1188 Grand Concourse is another Art Deco style apartment building by the architect Jacob M. Felson. The close proximity of the neighboring 1150 and 1188 structures, separated by 1166 also by Felson, allows for close examination of the architect’s style. The massive six-storey buff brick building at 1188, with its dark orange detail, has 101 residential units, and also receives income from retail store rentals at the north end of the property. The building is notable for its saw tooth pattern and its effective use of pink marble to frame the entrance along with intact square glass inserts above the building number, now, all but overshadowed by a brown canopy. A round interior lobby, also featured in the neighboring 1150 and 1166 buildings, has four murals of nature scenes (only a snow scene appears to be an original) framing its walls, with an attractive terrazzo floor in cream, black and green concentric circles. The 167th Street IND subway entrance is conveniently located on the corner; and small hedges and grass in front of the building give visual relief. Large signs and graffiti mar the beauty of the façade. Despite these blemishes, the building has been included in the Grand Concourse Historic District by the National Trust of Historic Places since 1987.
Other known Felson buildings also designated in this District are numbers 730, 740, 750, 760, 1166 and 1500 on the east side of the Concourse; and numbers 1355 and 1675 on the west side. All of these buildings are in the Art Deco style with the exception of 760 and 1355 Grand Concourse which are Felson examples of the neo-Renaissance style.
1855 Grand Concourse
(alternate address 122-126 Mount Hope Place)
Thomas Dunn, architect
Another Art Deco building, 1855 Grand Concourse, is a cream-colored brick apartment building with orange pilaster details, set between well positioned bay windows. Located on the west side of the Grand Concourse, this building has two entrances. The zigzagged Grand Concourse façade showcases the building. The main entrance is flanked by low surrounding hedges that enhance the site and refresh the spirit. This building is one of a growing number of Grand Concourse apartment buildings that is moving toward cooperative ownership by residents. The six-storey building, by architect Thomas Dunn, has 44 apartments. While it is not part of the Grand Concourse Historic District, the two-story Mediterranean style stucco building at 1025 Grand Concourse, now “Medicos Hispano,” has been granted this designation. St. Thomas Aquinas Church (1924) in the Bronx, is an earlier example of Thomas Dunn’s work.
2121 Grand Concourse
(alternate and now primary address 151 East 181st Street)
Horace Ginsbern, builder and architect
The pronounced zigzag styling of this six-storey cream colored brick building, with orange horizontal banding and deeply recessed and angled windows, takes full advantage of its site location on the Grand Concourse. It affords the residents of its 43 rental apartments privacy and uninterrupted views onto and southward along the boulevard. Eight commercial units also occupy the building. The builder and architect Horace Ginsbern intentionally incorporated commercial units into the original building design, but located its main entrance on the Grand Concourse. Today, the commercial establishments dominate the Grand Concourse frontage and the building residents must use the East 181st Street location to enter their apartments. This side of the building has a gray coffered caste-stone entrance.
The commercial units that Ginsbern envisaged had subtle business signs in harmony with each other and with the overall look of the building. The current signage sets a discordant tone detracting from the upper floors. Also, the original building entranceway on the Grand Concourse has now been replaced by a massive black metal gate. This site is an object lesson on the need for signage and building alteration oversight. As such, it underscores how important the landmarking process can be in maintaining attractive streetscapes. The true beauty of this otherwise remarkable building can still be recaptured with careful attention and reordering of its current façades. The non-use of casement windows, as originally planned by Ginsbern, is also to be regretted as these windows were selected to protect against wind and noise. While this building is not a part of the Grand Concourse Historic District, four other known Ginsberg buildings are in the district. All in the Art Deco style, these buildings are located at 1150, 1212, 1001-1009, and 1035 Grand Concourse. Another Horace Ginsbern building in the Bronx that merits attention is the striking Noonan Plaza (1931), which is also designed in the Art Deco style.
Marvin Fine, of Horace Ginsbern & Associates, did much of the design work for the exterior of Ginsbern’s buildings and his projects were influenced by William Van Alen (Chrysler Building), Raymond Hood (American Radiator Building), and Samuel Yellin (decorative iron work).
Janet Butler Munch
Lehman College Art Gallery